- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Washington Nationals have done a lot of things right this season. But if they needed any clearer indication that the word is out on their inability to hold base runners, they got it with two outs in the fourth inning Tuesday night when Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee stole second base on Stephen Strasburg.

Lee, who’d had one stolen base in his career, went without hesitation and became the 12th runner to steal off the Nationals’ in 14 attempts.

“I’m pretty upset with myself for letting guys steal on me,” Strasburg said, Lee’s being the third he allowed on the night. “If things aren’t going right, you still have to remember when there’s guys on base. You’ve got to keep them close.”

And while Strasburg is the one they’ve run on the most, he’s simply the leader on a staff that has not done well holding runners all year. The worst offenders include Craig Stammen (10 for 10), Gio Gonzalez (8 of 9) and Henry Rodriguez (7 of 9).

Entering Wednesday night’s game, 72 of 85 (85 percent) attempted base stealers had been successful, the second-worst percentage in the National League. Only the Pittsburgh Pirates (91 percent) were worse.

“I think that’s one of the things that we haven’t done well the whole season,” said catcher Jesus Flores, who has thwarted only 5 of 46 attempts but been mostly absolved of the blame by coaches

“I think we have to keep working on that with the pitchers trying to hold the runners better,” Flores said. “Then I can probably have more time to throw those guys out.”

Where the issue comes from is repetition. Strasburg, for example, usually takes only about 1.1 seconds to deliver the pitch once he comes set. But he so rarely varies his movements that opposing teams realize that once he comes set, he’s going to throw home.

“Their keys when they start to go to the plate are so easy to read that [runners] don’t have to get the great jump, so it doesn’t do us any good to throw over 100 times,” said bench coach Randy Knorr.

Knorr gives the signs for when to check on a runner, though manager Davey Johnson generally prefers the pitchers focus on the batter and not throw over too often anyway.

“That’s what we do,” Knorr said. “If that’s the worst thing we’ve got going for us, still being in first place, we’ll do our best to slow it down but we’re not going to get away from our stuff.”

The pitching staff also has the best ERA in the majors, has allowed the fewest hits and is below the NL average in walks and hit batters. So the base runners who have gotten on aren’t too plentiful to begin with.

Johnson and Knorr placed the lion’s share of the responsibility for the shortcomings in this area on the pitchers.

“I don’t want to be too critical on the catchers when I know what [the pitchers’] times are, and I know how come they’re stealing,” Johnson said. But the catchers, who’ve combined to catch just 15 percent of base runners all season, do bear some of the blame.

“If they don’t give [Flores] a chance, he can throw the ball as hard as he wants down there and he’s not going to get anybody,” Knorr said, relaying that same message to Flores. “But he’s got to stay within himself and not throw the ball away and give them the extra bag. My job is to say, ‘Hey, all you can do is do it as quick as you can and the most consistently you can. The rest, you can’t do anything about.’”

Many of the pitchers acknowledged getting better at varying their motions, and their times has been stressed, particularly with Strasburg. Stammen said it’s something he’s struggled with his entire career. They’ll make a conscious effort to improve it, but not at the risk of ruining what they’ve been doing well, which is pitching.

“I mean, Dwight Gooden was 1.6 [seconds to the plate],” Johnson said. “They stole second, stole third but they never scored. [Most of the pitchers] have got a quicker move, but they’ve also been very successful the way that they’re going. So, we ain’t changing.”

NOTES: Jordan Zimmermann will be pushed back a day to combat some shoulder inflammation that has hampered him when he’s getting loose for starts. Zimmermann will start Saturday, and Gonzalez will move up to pitch the second game of Friday’s doubleheader against the Marlins. John Lannan will pitch the first game.

• Ryan Zimmerman sat out for the second straight game Wednesday with back soreness but said he was “99.9” certain he’d play Thursday.